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Congonese dance music anyone?
Really, I mean it.
I came across Konono No1 at the Barbican, mistaken named Kronono No1, and as the Kronos Quartet were also playing that night I mistakenly assumed they were involved in some way. But, as I found out: not. The evening revolved around music that was either inspired by, or had inspired, or in some way linked to, that of minimalist composer Steve Reich. Id heard a lot of music that day. There had been several free concerts before the main ones. Konono No1 arrived on stage after having listen to about seven different acts all day and I was approaching the musicked-out stage. But then five unassuming individuals stepped on stage and the music began.
It was loud. And all the better for it. Unfortunately, being at the Barbican all were sat down though what you wanted to do was get up and dance, just as Konono No1 were dancing (well, not all of them, the drummer might have had issues with that). There was something energising about them, something that just made you want to move.
Like I say, Congonese dance music.
It seems Konono No1 were formed in the 1980s, to play likembe music. A likembe is a thumb piano, and from a distant seat it looks like a plastic childs toy from the 1980s o r else when of those old oblong tape players. I dont believe it is the same line-up that I saw at the Barbican on the CD but that hardly matters, the sound is pretty much the same and the musical drivers all identical. The thumb pianos have a curiously hollow tinny sound thats almost a cross between an electric guitar and a steel drum. Theres a lot of singing-cum-chanting and tremendous amounts of energetic percussion. The rhythm is mostly courtesy of the likembe, which acts like a guitar. The drumming (mostly snare drums) carries the music forward whilst the likembe goes into whichever rhythmical directions it cares to.
But what is this CD? How does it sound? Why should I listen to it? First off, Congotronics is seven tracks or fifty minutes long, whichever you like. Most songs are a danceable 8 minutes in length, enough to get you dancing round the kitchen (as you cook) whilst not exhausting you so that you forget to add the salt.
How does it sound? Now thats the hard thing to explain. Its very African. The rhythms and the drums all sound very, very traditionally African, but not in the way Peters Simon and Gabriel African music did from the mid-eighties. Its thoroughly modern yet entirely linked back into an artistic past. It also sounds incredibly modern in that as you listen you can hear avant-garde electronic musicians gritting their teeth in anger as heres the music that theyve always wanted to make. Because it does sound like a lot of avant-garde electronica does. Its something in the way the likembe play, in their near-sequenced rhythms. Only most avant-garde electronicists would never be able to work out the level of enthusiastic energy that Konono No1 manages to. Occasionally, say in the blasts of whistles from the drummer, you can hear early nineties jungle, maybe a little techno and a whole lotta dance music.
Because this really is dance music. But not necessarily any form of dance music that wed normally recognise or categorise. Its not for the young or the old. Because of the mix of traditional and modern its appeal manages to go beyond any slim criteria that we so often impose upon ourselves. Its danceable mainly because theres such energy here (and sometimes sounds almost a little West Indian) and such a furious sense of fun. You can feel Konono No1 enjoying themselves, and seeing them perform it was clear that they were really into what they were doing. They were not just going through the motions. Their enthusiasm really shines through the seven tracks. Their passion is entirely infectious and keeping the body still becomes a real challenge as you listen. So why bother to try?
Admittedly not every track is so high tempo Kuke Kule, and the reprise are somewhat slower and feel almost like ambient tracks, though you can hear it in Steve Reichs seminal classical piece, Drumming. Its fascinating to hear casually in their music what is often considered so sophisticated in Western Classical music. You realise they really were there first. Way, way before us.
In general I dont really like African music; I find it difficult to interact with. But Konono No1 manages to pull off the trick with fantastic ease. A lot of it seems to be down to the fact that they began as street musicians who found they need to amplify their music to be heard and so began to putting together great big amps and speakers created from whatever they could find. Its music for the people and for people to enjoy. Really, I find it hard to imagine anyone not enjoying Konono No1, though itd no doubt be placed in the World Music section, its got none of the stigmata attached to it that a lot of World Music has. It is accessible and such fun; it has rhythm and is instant-smile-just-add-CD-to-Hi-Fi-and-press-play.
This CD is available for £11.99 at Amazon and I urge you all to check it out. Im sure this is going to remain in my CD tray for a long time. For you out there looking for something interesting, new, fresh, energetic and just downright entertaining then look no further. Its a long time since Ive enjoyed a CD as much and as innocently as Congotronics. Normally I seek out strangeness or that which is a difficult listen but Congotronics is almost obscenely accessible and enjoyable that theres no need to see it as a guilty pleasure.
It is just a downright pleasure.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Lufuala Ndonga
3 Kule Kule
4 Ungudi Wele Wele
6 Kule Kule Reprise
7 Mama Liza